Empty Handed

Phebe Jewell


You tell me you will drive me to the clinic, sit in the waiting room, leaf through People and Us, all the magazines we laugh at. You will wait with fathers and old women then take me home. You will hold my hand as we walk to the car. You will put towels on the front seat (just in case) and tuck me into bed. You will listen for my call, ready to make tea, wash sheets as they bloody. You will bring in the mail, shovel the walk.

The first thing I learned after you moved in: never wash your karate gi. Thinking you’d be pleased to find the freshly washed gi dangling from old-fashioned wood hangers in the shower, I gathered up the heavy cotton in my arms, and switched the wash cycle to delicate. As I closed the lid, I pictured you tying your black belt, hands on hips facing your opponent. But when you came home from work and saw the square white man dripping in the tub you looked as if I’d killed someone.

The night we meet you tell me karate means “empty hand” – “kara” empty, “te” hand. “I like fighting with my bare hands,” you say. “Really, I’m fighting myself,” you add as I pass the joint.

My fourth graders study synonyms and antonyms. They learn other words for “problem,” and write sentences filled with “complications,” “dilemmas,” and “obstacles.” The next day their sentences find “solutions,” and “openings.”

When I tell you I’m late, you give me a half nod in your rush to get to the dojo on time. A week later I give you the news. You call me a tree of life, but we both know you won’t be there when the baby comes. I walk through the park, passing mothers and fathers pushing kids in strollers. We’ve been together six months. When I get home, I call the clinic.

The night before my appointment, you don’t come home from work. At midnight, I call our favorite bars. No one has seen you. The twang of the background blues can’t mask the pity in each bartender’s voice. I picture the crowded bar, an empty barstool. Or, as my fourth graders would say, “vacant,” “hollow,” “abandoned.”


Phebe Jewell’s work appears in numerous journals, most recently in Duck Duck Mongoose, Across the Margin, Miramichi Flash, MoonPark Review, and Milk Candy Review. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college classes for incarcerated women, trans-identified, and non-binary people in Washington State. Read her at https://phebejewellwrites.com.